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When your best employees retire (on tribal knowledge)

For a long time, companies measured most of their worth in terms of physical things they owned and produced. From the machines that created products, to the products themselves, from the equipment workers used to get their jobs done, to the real estate in which they worked, physical capital made up ~60% of a company’s total value. The rest was all in the intangible stuff, like customer relationships, organisational culture, employee skills and so on.
When the computers became more accessible and widely available, the value of information became the main measure.

Today, the vast majority of an organisation’s value lives in those non-physical assets – upwards of 80%, depending on the industry. Hence, it shouldn’t be a surprise that your company’s tribal knowledge is incredibly valuable. In fact, it’s a critical competitive advantage. However, if it’s locked away in the heads of your people, you simply can’t tap into that value and it’s as good as if it never existed. And when your employees leave or retire, often you end up losing it altogether.

What is tribal knowledge exactly?

Tribal knowledge means the unwritten information and practices that are a part of every enterprise and those that drive operations without ever being explicitly codified. Tribal knowledge manifests in almost every process and typically, it is in the heads of a few of the employees who “have been there and done that” for a while.

The amount of tribal knowledge in a company is directly proportional to the years of existence, the growth, and the underlying complexity.

There are several reasons why tribal knowledge accumulates over time. It could be because of the natural course of the evolutions and revolutions a company undergoes through the lifecycle. For example, a process that was done a particular way in a specific location continues to follow the same course, despite new technologies and new ways of doing things. As long as things are getting done, the practice is let to continue, and that becomes inherent in a small group of people.

On the other hand, some employees may keep knowledge with the intent of becoming indispensable and safeguarding their job and raising their relative importance. And in other cases, some practices and operations abound despite the fact they are not standard policy. But people do it anyway – under the radar. This behaviour could be a colossal compliance risk. The risks of letting the tribal knowledge and the invisible enterprise to continue are manifold.

These are the common situations where the most valuable assets are often mismanaged, and what you can do to retain them to your advantage;

When employees leave

In the past, employers could expect their staff to “stay put” until retirement. Working in one job for all your life was a reason to be proud of. Those days, along with the guaranteed pension and loyalty to employees that came with them, are gone. Today’s employers face higher turnover rates than at any other time in history. What happens to an organisation when it’s best, brightest, most experienced and knowledgeable employees leave? Losing an employee isn’t easy or cheap to begin with. There are many costs that need to be considered; HR, time spent on paperwork, recruitment fees related with sourcing new candidates to taking away managers and teams from their day to day tasks to focus on interview to training that new employee up to full productivity. The list goes on.

Then there is this intangible cost associated with all the knowledge that’s in the employee’s head. Many companies don’t have the right procedures in place for knowledge transfer and often don’t know what they’re taking with them until it’s gone, or they might have never known it existed in the first place. When employee decides to leave, it’s usually too late to structure all that tribal knowledge has been so far accessible to other colleagues. What happens when that one employee who everybody went to and that always seemed to have the answers is gone?

When employees can’t find what they need

If we consider highly skilled employees that specialise in your niche product or a solution, each minute of their time not spent on serving company’s customers creates potential losses. According to a McKinsey report, employees spend 1.8 hours every day – 9.3 hours per week, on average – searching and gathering information. If they take time away from solving problem to search for information that may or may not exist, it’s a waste of valuable time.
Tribal knowledge means customers’ history, products, processes, equipment and all past records where similar or the same problems have been solved. If that can’t be easily searched and accessed, company’s competitive advantage and efficiency hurts. Why reinvent the wheel and have your highly skilled, expensive employes time on things that have been solved already? It’s a vicious cycle of productivity drain. Usually what happens is that when such employee can’t find the answer, he/she may resort to creating content on their own. Since language is a flexible tool, this often leads to inconsistent messaging and even inaccuracies when dealing with prospects in the future. All of this can hurt all your efforts of unifying client insights’ accuracy further down the road.

When new employees join

No matter how skilled the new hires are when starting, they all need to go through a lot of adjustment in a short amount of time when they first join a new organisation. Onboarding, training, job shadowing and mentoring and a ramp-up period where they’re in transition period to their full productivity. This step can usually be from one to six months (or more) long depending on the complexity of company’s products and services. During that time, new employees learn to navigate in a new environment by asking ask a lot of questions and reaching out to other team colleagues for support.

While almost everyone would prefer to be independent in learning the trade, it’s usually not possible. If your tribal knowledge lives in the heads of your employees only or and can’t be easily found within company’s knowledge database, that new team member will be tapping shoulders to find the answers they need. As a result, other team members will be pulled away from their work too, causing larger loss in productivity.

Squeezing out the most value of a tribal knowledge

Company’s goal is to capture that departing employee’s knowledge before they even think of leaving. To give that new employee everything they need to work independently and confidently when they’re learning the ropes.  To give your whole team answers at their fingertips when they need them the most, not after hours of searching. The good news is that most of that tribal knowledge is already stored – it’s just scattered across different systems and repositories. Often floats freely in free forms, pdfs, metadata of images, or lives in solved customer tickets.

You just need a special key to find and unlock that value. A platform like Untrite AI can help pull all of it together and make it accessible from one place (without making copies, only referencing the sources – your original systems remain intact) so your employees don’t need to search far and wide. Tools utilising AI like Untrite AI is the next evolution of process mining and leverages machine intelligence to discover those nuanced insights – both visible and invisible, and written-down and tacit. Untrite AI serves as a digital brain – a virtual employee that holds collective knowledge – that retains the context, decisions, and outcomes. It not only captures and harmonises the relevant internal, external, and physical data, it provides the analytical context necessary to make intelligent decisions.

AI learns fast and constantly

Systems powered by AI such as Untrite AI (and more precisely, those utilising NLP, a type of AI responsible for teaching machines to understand human language) can pull relevant information, create recommendations using the data and the history from your previous decisions. AI-powered tools like Untrite’s have the ability to not only learn, but also show the supporting data for the recommendations, strengthens the trust in its automation capabilities. AI never stops learning from user interactions, systematically absorbing new insights and adjusting its recommendations fast and accordingly.

With AI, organisations can capture and leverage tribal knowledge built up within to make better decisions. With augmentation tools and constantly learning automation capacities, the experience-based intuition of your expert workers is captured and leveraged. Even more, if the workforce continues to evolve and change, the system always readjusts insights and stays up to date.

Taking a step into AI-driven knowledge management practices

Instead of simply using new tech tools to analyse old data, AI-powered organisation can unlock and utilise its hidden data within collective intelligence. Information stored in things such as free forms, technician notes or ticket information that lives outside of traditional databases or uncategorised information about customers or machines that until now – only your best experts seemed to know – can be easily accessed when AI is applied. This is the key to making tribal knowledge freely accessible and actionable, so what used to be known by only a few can be turned into insights freely available to the people that need it.

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